Xenophon’s influence on the Gospel of Luke
What works of Greek literature influenced Luke—the author of the New Testament books of Luke and Acts—when he was writing?
Luke and Acts should be seen as a single two-part work, two volumes of a historical monograph.1 This is shown by many features in both volumes, including chronological synchronisms and the preface in Luke 1:1–4. According to that preface, Luke wrote these books to Theophilus, a person of high status deserving the title of “noble” and probably his patron.
Luke models a good bit of his two volumes on previous works of Hellenistic historiography, such as those by the fifth-century BC historian Thucydides and the second-century BC historian Polybius. This is not to deny the influence of Jewish history writing or the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) on Luke’s work, but here I wish to explore a particular possible influence on Luke: Xenophon’s Anabasis.
For those unfamiliar with this work, a precis is in order. The title itself means “Expedition up from” or “Ascent”—in this case, up from the coastal regions of Asia Minor to the capital city of the Persian Empire, Persepolis. It involves the Persian leader Cyrus the Younger who, after recruiting Greek mercenaries, marches from the coast to take the throne from his brother Artaxerxes. (This Cyrus is not to be confused with his namesake, Cyrus the Great, who, during the previous century, allowed Jews to return home from Babylonian exile.) Xenophon is the commander of the Greek mercenaries.
This march across Mesopotamia provided Xenophon with an opportunity to write one of the most famous military march accounts ever. The events themselves took place in 401 BC, and Xenophon recorded the account not long thereafter, in 371 BC. Xenophon himself was not merely a historian but an eyewitness and participant in this whole journey. A military man, he was even credited with some of the success that Cyrus had in fighting his way east toward his brother.
Recording one of the great human adventures of that whole age, the widely known and greatly praised Anabasis eventually inspired Philip of Macedon and Alexander to think that a Hellenic army could conquer the known world. If Theophilus (to whom Luke-Acts was written) was a literate Greek, he likely knew Xenophon’s work. And it should be noted that Luke himself shows personal knowledge of the philosophical scene in Athens (see Acts 17:21). There is evidence he knew far more than just the Septuagint. He also knew Greek philosophy, Greek rhetoric, and likely some Greek classics. For example, Homer’s Odyssey, the most famous of all Greek works, seems to have influenced the way Luke tells the story of Paul’s sea journeys to Rome.
In the Anabasis, Cyrus is killed in Book One, where Xenophon provides a eulogy for him. Although Cyrus had made it all the way to Cunaxa, on the Euphrates about 43 miles north of Babylon, near modern Baghdad, he died there from battle wounds and never became king.
Xenophon’s story in Book One is punctuated frequently with journeying, or “going up,” language. See, for example, the response of Cyrus’s soldiers, who “when they heard what Cyrus said, and how he had scouted the idea of going up [Greek: πορεύεσθαι] to the great king’s palace, expressed their approval” (Anabasis 188.8.131.52). Importantly, it is not literal language like one would use about climbing a mountain; rather, it is meant to convey the notion of going to the capital city where Artaxerxes reigns, the politically highest place in the realm. Similarly, in Luke’s Gospel, even though Jesus is geographically traveling up and down various places until he gets to Jerusalem, all along, as in the Anabasis, Luke characterizes the journey as “going up” to Jerusalem.
Both of Luke’s volumes have a journeying motif: The Gospel of Luke has an orientation of journeying up to Jerusalem, and the Book of Acts has one of journeying from Jerusalem through the empire to Rome. As has often been pointed out by scholars, about 40 percent of Luke’s Gospel focuses on Jesus’s journey up to Jerusalem and what happened along the way (Luke 9:51–19:44). Already in Luke 9, Luke tells us that Jesus is determined, in fact has set his face like a flint (9:51), to go up to Jerusalem. For the next ten chapters we are reminded again and again that Jesus is on this journey to Jerusalem. Acts devotes an amazing third of its content to Paul’s final journey from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 19:21–28:31). Obviously, the journeying motif is major in both volumes and for both of the major protagonists—Jesus and Paul. And, in both cases, the end result is judicial murder.2
The pattern of Jesus’s journeying to Jerusalem appears throughout Luke’s Gospel. Although the motif is almost completely missing in the other Gospels, this regular drumbeat is hard to miss in Luke, as exemplified by the following passages (author’s translation).
(1) “As the days drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, he set his face to go up to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:5).
(2) “The Samaritans would not give him hospitality because his face was set towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53).
(3) “He went on his way through towns and villages, imparting his teaching while traveling to Jerusalem” (Luke 13:22).
(4) “I must be on my way … No prophet can die away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).
(5) “On the way to Jerusalem, he passed through the border country between Samaria and Galilee” (Luke 17:11).
(6) “He said: ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem’” (Luke 18:31).
(7) “He went on to tell a parable, as he was near to Jerusalem” (Luke 19:11).
(8) “After saying this, he went on ahead, going up [Greek: ἀναβαίνων] to Jerusalem” (Luke 19:28).
(9) “While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once” (Luke 19:11).
(10) “And when he drew near and saw the city of Jerusalem, he wept” (Luke 19:41).
Scholars have long known that Luke is not a slavish copier of his sources. One can easily compare his use of Mark’s Gospel to Matthew’s use of it—only about 52 percent of Mark appears in some form in Luke, compared to 95 percent in Matthew—and realize Luke is editing and adding things with a purpose, not just to save space on the scroll. (Many biblical scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written first, then the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Luke, and finally the Gospel of John. The later Gospels draw on the earlier ones.) One of the main things Luke adds is the journeying motif. If one compares this to Mark or Matthew, the former spends about one chapter on the final journey, the latter about two chapters. These pale in comparison to Luke. But there is more.
The journeying up to Jerusalem motif is already evidenced in Luke’s birth narratives in Luke 1–2. The gospel actually begins with the story of Zechariah going up to Jerusalem from somewhere in Judea to take his turn serving in the Temple. This is followed by the story of Mary and Joseph not merely going up to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, but carrying on to Jerusalem’s Temple, for rites of purification and the dedication of Jesus to God (Luke 2:22–38). This story is found only in Luke.
Were this not enough, we have yet another journeying up to Jerusalem story in Luke 2:41–52, a story only found in Luke, about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph going up to Jerusalem for the festival and Jesus’s teaching in the Temple precincts. In short, we have three separate stories about journeys to Jerusalem in the space of the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, a very different start to the gospel than we find in Matthew.
Scholars have often pondered why Luke doesn’t include any of the resurrection appearances in Galilee. Did he just not know them? I doubt this is the case, especially if he had consulted the eyewitnesses (as Luke 1:1–4 says) in composing his account. He knows perfectly well from Mark 14:28 that Jesus promised to meet the disciples again in Galilee. Why does he leave this out of his account?
My answer is that it does not suit the historical superstructure he is creating for his two-volume work, with journeying to Jerusalem being the guiding theme in the gospel, and in Acts journeying from Jerusalem west to Rome. Luke is so fixated on preserving this motif that not only does he omit the references to appearances in Galilee (and says almost nothing about the evangelism of Galilee, except Acts 10:37), but he even records Jesus’s saying, “Stay in Jerusalem until you receive power from on high” (Luke 24). If Theophilus had only Luke’s Gospel, he would never have known about the conclusions to Matthew’s and John’s telling of the Gospel that focus on Jesus’s last appearances in Galilee (Matthew 28; John 21).
Why so much emphasis on these journeys?
Luke is concerned that Theophilus understand “the things that have happened among us” by giving him an orderly account with at least some familiar motifs from Greek literature. A good historian takes into account what his audience does and doesn’t know. Since Theophilus was probably Luke’s patron, all the more reason for Luke to write his two-volume work in a way that would be a word on target for Theophilus, a Greek.
Ben Witherington III is the Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
 The narrative parallels between Luke and Acts have been well noted by Robert Tannehill in his influential two-volume work, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989 and 1991).
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